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From the Mixed-Up Files: On Running Away

Other | November 20, 2017

“First, it was hiding. Not being discovered. And after hiding became easy, there was Angel. Somehow, Angel became more important than running away. – Claudia Kincaid

As a child, I never took seriously the possibility of running away. I read stories, though. Fed-up, precocious kids would pack small suitcases and make it as far as the street corner, only to be brought back by their own naiveté or a realization of their parents’ unconditional love. Some succeeded. I loved reading about kids who left, but I just couldn’t imagine doing it myself. I didn’t see this kind of escape as a real solution and couldn’t imagine where I would go. Instead, I went to the library and checked out five more installments of The Adventures of Mary-Kate and Ashley.

In my mind, my boring suburban life lacked art and mystery. Those lived in the city. I used books to go there. Most of the characters in these books were quite different than I was, and therein lay their appeal. As a child of immigrants, I thought I was uninformed and uncool, missing out on yet another fundamentally American tradition.

When I first read E. L. Konigsburg’s From The Mixed-Up Files of Basil E. Frankweiler as a nine-year-old, it didn’t make much sense to me. I kind of regarded it as a work of experimental fiction. In this 1967 classic of children’s literature, sixth-grader Claudia Kincaid decides to run away from her Greenwich, Connecticut home, where the main injustices she faces are chores and her parents’ inattentiveness. Her escape is no frustrated stomp in the playground; it’s a carefully deliberated plan. She chooses her younger brother Jamie to accompany her because he knows how to handle money and has a sizeable sum of it: $24. They stuff their clothing into cello cases and go to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

While somehow managing to avoid detection by security (it was the 1960s, I guess), they quickly embroil themselves in a mystery. A new work of art of unknown provenance has been donated to the museum, and our protagonists suspect it may be a Michelangelo. The sculpture becomes their reason for staying, as “secrets are the kind of adventure [Claudia] needs.” Konigsburg’s storytelling infuses everything our siblings do with drama, high stakes, and a light humor. Their epiphanic encounter of the Angel, a marbled being bathed in light, comes back to me in every art museum I visit.

Being around Jamie’s age, I couldn’t maintain any distance from the characters. Their confusion and delight became my own. I believed their every word and wanted to stay in their world. Hiding became easy.

I grew up far enough away from The City to long for it, and close enough to know that it was somehow more real than anything else, to daydream about the forms it took: Philadelphia, New York and even Boston (I know). By the time I worked up the requisite sense of self to run away, I was 18 years old, taking the bus to visit friends for an October weekend. My relationship with New York City was new and private. Of course I imagined it as a kind of affair, like I was slipping into a different room to be someone else for a few days only to be carried back via Megabus to my unglamorous life, where I would fail my Bio13 midterm. This was before I realized I wasn’t special, and that there’s no poetry in cheating.

But even now I let myself romanticize the place though I know it’s useless, misguided, and will lead to heartbreak. I think: this is where the heart of the country is buried. This is where it beats. Turning these tired, necessary metaphors over and over as if sucking on a cough drop in the new cold. I think about my own personal New York City saints—poets, writers, painters and performers—who lived and died there; I asked for Frank O’Hara’s collected poems for my 16th birthday. Then I think about Trump Tower, Williamsburg, and iced pumpkin spice chai lattes. How cheap and flat 2017 seems in comparison to any other year. How everyone’s an artist with an all-white bedroom, one succulent, and a Matisse print on the wall. From The Mixed Up Files: “If you think of doing something in New York City, you can be certain that at least two thousand other people have the same thought.”

More than a decade out from my first reading of The Mixed Up Files, I’m not as committed to the idea of escapism as I once was. But somewhere along the way, I have been Claudia. In the book’s last movements, the children’s journey to find out about the Angel leads them to encounter the eponymous Basil E., the aged art collector who gave the statue to the Met in the first place. In her stately home, she indulges the children by reaching into her mythically expansive filing system of secrets and presenting Michelangelo’s original sketch of the Angel. She bequeaths the framed sketch to Claudia and Jamie. Claudia starts to cry. She is a girl on the edge of adolescence, overwhelmed by the magnificence and resonance of an old secret finally made real. Something Michelangelo himself touched. When the New York City skyline comes into view, I feel close to her: fascinated and uncontained.

The ending of the book depends on a surprising change of tone as Mrs. Frankweiler’s narration moves to the forefront. She describes Claudia, our idealistic hero, as sounding like “a bad actress in a bad play.” It used to seem to me that she punctured the children’s hopes by chauffeuring them home. When I read these pages now, I’m struck by the poignancy of how she responds to Claudia’s assertion that she should learn one new thing every day: “I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside you.”

If before I wanted to run away as Claudia, now I’d rather build a life in which I get to be Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, an eccentric collector of mixed-up secrets. The kind of life that makes room for the contradictions of longing and knowing, for allowing them to swell. It involves going places, sure, but no longer wanting to run away from myself.